La Vuelta a España, professional cycling's third and final 3-week grand tour of the season, begins on Saturday, August 20 in Benidorm, Spain. Madrid will host the final stage on September 11 after 3,295km (2,047 miles) of racing. This year's edition of the race promises to be exciting with a deep field of contenders and an interesting route. Here is a look at what the first week has to offer.
Stage 1: 16km TTT in Benidorm
The race begins on the beach at Benidorm with a short team time trial. The route is a tale of two halves: the first a climb & descent and the second purely flat roads. The climb isn't long or steep enough to cause serious problems, but it should be just enough to keep things interesting.
HTC-Highroad, a usual favorite, may have extra motivation as this will be their final team time trial before the team folds this winter. Also look for strong performances from the usual suspects like Garmin-Cervelo, RadioShack, and Sky.
Stage 2: 171.5km La Nucia - Playas de Orihuela
Almost a road race version of the team time trial course, Stage 2 features a category 3 climb early on and finishes on flat roads near the sea. The day's two intermediate sprints come at 91.8km in Santa Pola and 129.8km in Dolores.
Expect the sprinters' teams to take full advantage of this early opportunity. This year's Vuelta field has a high number of top sprinters, including Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), Alessandro Petaccchi (Lampre-ISD), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo), and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), all of whom will be looking to show some form ahead of this year's sprinter-friendly World Championships course in Copenhagen. Look out for young German Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano), who is coming off of 4 sprint wins in the Tour of Poland.
Stage 3: 164km Petrer - Totana
Stage 3 offers up two category 3 climbs within the last 55km of racing, with the finish coming on flat roads more than 10km from the summit of the final climb. The final climb should serve as a springboard for late attacks, but will the opportunists be able to stay away to hold off the sprinters until the finish?
This stage is well suited for the better-climbing sprinters like Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and Freire (Rabobank).
Stage 4: 170km Baza - Sierra Nevada
Fans will be treated to the first mountain top finish on just the 4th stage. The day's climbing begins right from the start with the category 1 Alto de Filabres and finishes with a 23.5 climb at an average of 5.7% towards the Sierra Nevada Resort.
As the saying goes, the race won't be won on Stage 4, but it could be lost. This will be the first test for the general classification riders and one or two may fail it. Many riders have entered the Vuelta with a shot at the overall win, inluding defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) Joakim Rodriguez (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), and Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack).
Stage 5: 200km Sierra Nevada - Valdapeñas de Jaen
Up and down all day with two category 2 climbs and a 23% kick to the finish, Stage 5 looks to be a tough day in the saddle.
The sprinters have no chance here and the breakaway artists should have lost plenty of time on the previous stage, so today could be the first time a break makes it all the way to the finish. Expect the punchy climbers like Igor Anton (who has won at this finish before) and Joakim Rodriguez to fight to gain seconds on guys like Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali.
Stage 6: 193km Ubeda - Cordoba
Similar to Stage 3, Stage 6 is mostly a sprinter-friendly course with a climb thrown in towards the end to keep things interesting. This time the climb is the category 2 Alto de San Jeronimo that summits about 20km before the finish line.
The sprinters' teams should be eager for another opportunity after a few difficult days, so expect them to keep things together for a sprint finish.
Stage 7: 185km Almaden - Talavera de la Reina
A day without any categorized climbs greets the peloton to round out the first week of racing.
This is a picture perfect day for the sprinters, and Mark Cavendish should be favored to win.
The first week of the Vuelta has a little something for everybody: a team time trial, sprint stages, a tough uphill finish, a true mountain top finish, and a few opportunities for breakaways to stick. Rarely do we see this much variety during the first week of a grand tour, so kick back, relax, and enjoy the race!